Robert Howard Lord.

The second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history online

. (page 5 of 59)
Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 5 of 59)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

been stripped of wellnigh every prerogative. In order that the
Diet might not endanger ' liberty,' it had been reduced to com-
plete impotence. The Dietines, in which the Liberum Veto also
prevailed, were, as organs of government, scarcely more respect-
able. In Poland, Raynal declared, " everyone has the power to
prevent action, and no one the power to act. There the will of any
individual may thwart the general will; and there alone a foolish, a
wicked, or an insane man is sure to prevail over a whole nation." 3
Montesquieu rightly affirmed that ' the object of the laws of
Poland was the independence of every individual,' 4 that is of
every nobleman.

The szlachta had, in fact, attained the most complete freedom,
not only from every kind of oppression, but from any sort of
obligation or constraint. From the latter part of the seventeenth
century on, they ceased to render military service, since the de-
velopment of warfare had made the old feudal levies an an-
achronism; nevertheless they continued to consider themselves

1 Cited in Lehtonen, Die polnischen Provinzen Russlands, p. 15.

2 Annual Register, 1763, p. 46.

3 Histoire philosophique el politique des Etablissemens des Europeens dans les
deux Indes, x, p. 52.

4 U Esprit des Lois, Bk. 11, ch. 5.


the sword and buckler of Poland and to claim all the privileges for
which their former service had been the sole justification. They
enjoyed a monopoly of land-owning. They exercised sovereign
and unlimited power over the serfs on their estates. They could
not be taxed without their consent, and in practice they paid
none of the usual taxes, not even customs-duties. They could not
be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of their property without
trial, nor punished for their speeches and opinions. They held a
monopoly of the higher positions in the Church, and of political
rights and offices. Through their control of the Diet, the Dietines,
and the courts of justice, they had in their hands whatever
machinery of government existed. Finally, every nobleman,
however indigent or insignificant he might be, had the right to
attend and to participate in the elections to the throne, as a
supreme demonstration of the fact that in Poland the sovereignty
belonged to every szlachcic individually, as well as to all the
szlachta collectively. It may be doubted whether any other class
has ever obtained such unrestricted independence and such a
fullness of power and privilege. The szlachta themselves were
wont to boast that it was impossible to imagine a happier lot than
that of a Polish nobleman, and they looked down upon all the
other peoples of Europe as the ' slaves of despots.'

Naturally there grew up in the minds of the ruling class an
idealization of this ' golden liberty,' purchased by ' the blood and
toil ' of their 'virtuous ancestors,' which became a sort of relig-
ion, and a veritable obsession. One hardly knows whether to
wonder more at the glorification of the szlachta as a caste, or at
the panegyrics lavished upon the constitution which the nobility
had created. The szlachta, it was said, were exalted above all the
other classes as the cedars of Lebanon above the common trees.
They were the heart and hands of the body politic, as the king
was the head and the commoners the feet. As they gave their
lives to the defence of the Republic, it was meet that the lower
orders should serve them. It was necessary to have in the state
one class of people who, disdainful of all gain, sought only the
dignity, honor, and advantage of the fatherland. Traders and
artisans, absorbed in money-making, were incapable of lofty


thought or deeds, just as the szlachta, living only for virtue, truth,
and right, were incapable of any low action. 1

As for the constitution, it was defended with a great store of
classical erudition, which testifies to the profound influence of
Humanism upon Polish thought. With their minds full of politi-
cal and legal ideas borrowed from antiquity, with the old phrases
about ' tyranny,' ' freedom,' and ' equality ' ever upon their lips,
the szlachta finally came to conceive of themselves as the rein-
carnation of the Roman Republic. The analogy was useful in a
dozen ways. Did not History show that in the ancient republics
political rights had also been confined to one class of well-born,
wealthy, and leisured citizens, below which stood a servile pro-
letariat ? Was not a deputy exercising the Liberum Veto merely
a tribune of the people ? Was not a Confederation simply a new
form of the Roman dictatorship ? Nowhere else, perhaps, was
the ideal of a democratic republic of the ancient type so popular,
or so potent in shaping political theory and practice. 2

Religion also added its sanction to the apotheosis of the
szlachta-state. In order to assure the victory of the Counter-
Reformation, the Jesuits had not hesitated to make themselves
ardent champions of ' golden liberty,' and to proclaim that the
free constitution of the Republic was peculiarly adapted to Catho-
lic principles and teaching. Under the influence of the clergy, the
Poles came to regard themselves as under the special protection
of Providence, as a chosen people; and confirmation for this belief
was found in the many signs and wonders of the seventeenth
century, especially in the miraculous deliverance of the country
from the Swedes in the time of John Casimir. 3

Extravagant as such theories were, they took deep root in the
minds of the nobility. Combined with material interests, class-
egotism, and the instinct of self-preservation, they produced in
the szlachta a blind conservatism, a horror of all innovations, a
fierce determination to maintain the existing state of things,
which long rendered reforms almost impossible.

1 Cf. the interesting essay of Wl. Smolenski, " Szlachta w swietle wlasnych
opinii," in his Pisma historyczne, i.

2 KapieBt, nojibCKift CeiiMT., pp. 42 ff.

3 Cf. Smolenski, Przewrot umyslowy w Polsce wieku XVIII, p. 9.


The constitutional development of Poland from the end of the
fourteenth down to the middle of the seventeenth century had
been continuous, consistent, and logical. Unfortunate as that
evolution had been, there had at least been life and movement.
But in the seventeenth century growth ceased. The constitution
had taken on fixed forms, and now entered upon a period of petri-
faction during which all the disastrous effects of the preceding
evolution made themselves increasingly and appallingly felt.
The seventeenth century was marked by intellectual and moral
retrogression, economic decline, growing political anarchy, and
continual, exhausting, and on the whole disastrous conflicts with
the neighboring Powers. Then followed the dullest and dreariest
period of Polish history, the reigns of the two Saxon Kings (1697-
1763), an age in which patriotism, public spirit, energy, and
initiative seemed to have deserted Poland. After the incessant
wars of the preceding period, amid which the nation could still
produce heroes like Czarniecki or Sobieski, the szlaehta laid aside
their swords and abandoned themselves thenceforth to the joys of
life on their estates, enhanced by constant and exuberant festivi-
ties, and varied by the excitements connected with the Diets, the
Dietines, the law-courts, and a sordid and senseless party strife.
This age of materialism, selfishness, apathy, and stagnation
brought Poland to the depths of degradation. Her impotence
was now well known to all the world, her anarchy proverbial, and
her complete downfall a matter of common discussion.


^In the middle of the eighteenth century, just before the period
of the great disasters began, Poland was suffering from innumer-
able maladies. Outwardly, indeed, the Republic might still make
a somewhat impressive appearance. With an area of approxi-
mately 282,000 square miles, it ranked as the third largest state
on the Continent, 1 while in population it stood fourth, with over

1 Korzon {Wewnqtrzne dzieje Polski za Stanisiawa Augusta, i, p. 44) estimates
the area in 1772 (after the loss of the Zips, and without counting in Courland) at
^jS 00 geographical square miles, which would equal 282,382.94 square miles,
English. Among European states, only Russia and Sweden were larger.


eleven million souls. 1 But this population was far from homo-
geneous. The Poles can scarcely have formed more than fifty
per cent of it at the most; more than one- third of it was made up
of Little and White Russians; while the remainder consisted of
Germans, Lithuanians, Jews, Armenians, and Tartars. 2 This lack
of national unity was aggravated by the lack of religious unity.
The Poles and Lithuanians were, with few exceptions, Roman
Catholics; the Germans were mostly Protestants; and the Rus-
sians had for many centuries belonged to the Orthodox Eastern
Church. It was true that owing to the unceasing efforts of the
Polish clergy and the pressure of the landowners, the great ma-
jority of the Russian peasantry within the Republic had been
brought over to union with Rome; but their conversion had been
effected so recently and in part by such unedifying means that
their loyalty to the Roman Church was open to grave suspicion.
These religious diversities were the more dangerous because,
while the Poles had formerly shown themselves the most tolerant
nation in Europe, they were now coming to display quite the
contrary spirit. During the later seventeenth and early eigh-
teenth centuries the Dissidents (i. e., the non- Catholics) were
gradually deprived of political and even civil rights, subjected to
many forms of petty persecution, and occasionally exposed to
outbursts of violence, such as the so-called Massacre of Thorn in
1724. This unhappy state of affairs contributed not a little to
alienating the sympathies of the European public from Poland;
it furnished foreign Powers with a welcome pretext for interven-
tion; and it produced among the Russian population a chronic,
sullen, and ominous discontent. In the rich palatinates of the
southeast, where a small Polish minority of landowners and
priests ruled over millions of Russian serfs, the gentry lived in
constant fear of a jacquerie, of which the Orthodox popes would
be the natural leaders.

1 After elaborate computations Korzon (op. cit., i, p. 63) concludes that in 1764
the total population was probably about 11-11 1/2 millions. Only France, Russia,
and Austria had larger populations at that time.

2 So much can be gathered from Korzon's statistics with regard to the religious
divisions, op. cit., i, pp. 163 ff. Unfortunately he does not attempt to supply any
ethnic statistics directly.


If racial and religious divisions sapped the strength of the
Republic, the social system of Old Poland was even more ruinous.
It has often been pointed out that this state was a paradise for the
nobility, but quite the reverse for all the other classes. Now the
szlachta, although more numerous perhaps than the nobility of
any other European country, formed only about eight per cent of
the population; the townsmen, Jewish and Christian, about
fifteen per cent; and the peasants seventy-two per cent. 1 The
interests of all the other classes had been systematically sacrificed
in favor of a caste which numbered less than a million.

Five-sixths of the Polish peasantry were serfs on the estates of
the Crown, the Church, or the szlachta. It seems to be generally
admitted that the lot of the serfs in Poland was more cruel than
anywhere else, chiefly because the state was here unable to offer
any protection to the serf. The many appalling descriptions that
have come down to us portray the mass of the peasantry as sunk
to a state of misery, apathy, and brutishness that almost defies
comparison. One contemporary declares: " These people differ
little from cattle, have no property, live from hand to mouth, and
rot in filth and poverty; half their offspring die from lack of
sunlight and proper nourishment, . . . and they themselves
finally perish from hunger, if a year of bad harvest comes. It
must be confessed that whatever fate should befall Poland, their
condition could not become any worse." 2

The sad fortunes of the Polish towns have already been de-
scribed. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Republic
did not contain a single city of 50,000 inhabitants, and only seven
with over 10,000; 3 and most of the so-called cities were only
" agricultural settlements and collections of straw-covered huts,"
where a few Jews, artisans, and tinkers dragged out a wretched
existence. With their trade and industry ruined, largely by the
selfish class-legislation of the Diet, robbed of their municipal

1 Cf. the table in Korzon, op. cit., i, p. 320. These figures relate to the year
1 791; but it may be assumed, I think, that substantially the same ratio between
the various classes existed forty years earlier.

2 Cited in Von der Briiggen, Polens Aujiosung, p. 54. For general descriptions of
the condition of the serfs, see Lehtonen, Die polnischen Provinzen Russlands, pp.
32-72, and Korzon, op. cit., i, pp. 350-366. 3 Korzon, op. cit., i, pp. 274 ff.


autonomy, exposed to the continual and tyrannous interference
of the szlachta in their domestic affairs, and excluded from all
political rights and offices, the townsmen, like the peasantry,
could scarcely be expected to feel any genuine devotion to the

As the state existed solely for the benefit of the szlachta, as
everything else had been sacrificed to the interests of the szlachta,
one might have supposed that this class at least would be in
sound and prosperous condition, and able to furnish a great
reservoir of strength to the Republic. But even within this
exalted caste, poverty and wretchedness were the lot of the great
majority. Although in theory all members of this class were
equal, and the richest magnate was bound to address the poorest
szlachcic as ' brother,' in fact this much-vaunted equality was
very much a farce. The szlachta were divided into several strata
sharply differentiated by wealth, education, and social position.

At the top were sixteen or seventeen great families, like the
Potockis, the Czartoryskis, or the Radziwills; families who
possessed immense wealth and estates which in some cases sur-
passed in extent many a principality of Germany or Italy. Some
of these magnates maintained courts which outshone that of the
king in splendor and rigid etiquette; kept up standing armies of
their own (their ' house-militia '), a correspondence with foreign
monarchs, and a sort of foreign policy; aped the manners of
royalty to the best of their ability, and were accustomed to sign
themselves, 'We, Palatine (or Castellan), by the grace of God.'
In short, they conducted themselves like sovereign princes, and
in fact they often had more real power than the king of
Poland. Considering themselves born to rule the country and to
hold all the most lucrative positions, these families engaged in
incessant struggles with one another for power, influence, and
plunder. Their rivalry kept the Republic in constant turmoil,
and was demoralizing and dangerous, not only because it was so
entirely divorced from questions of principle or considerations of
patriotism, but also because in order to vanquish its domestic
opponents, each faction was generally ready to call in the aid of
foreign Powers.


Below the magnates stood the large number of fairly well-to-do
szlachta, who took but little part in politics, busied themselves
chiefly with their estates, and led simple, industrious, God-fearing
lives like their ancestors. In spite of their ignorance and preju-
dices, these middle-class gentry were probably the best element
in the nation.

The majority of the szlachta belonged to that aristocratic pro-
letariat which was made up of those who had either no land at all
or only enough to make a bare living. Poverty-stricken, ragged,
and dirty, living like peasants or worse, but still rilled with all the
pride of their caste, and eager to vent it on all occasions, these
people excited the derision of every foreigner, and were, indeed,
one of the most unique spectacles to be seen in Poland. Hundreds
and thousands of them lived at the courts of the magnates, serving
the latter in their militia, in the administration of their estates, or
even in menial capacities. It was a point of honor and almost a
matter of necessity for every great ' lord ' in Poland to have hosts
of such ' clients ' at his disposal, and their services were extremely
useful. For it was from this class that the magnates recruited
those hordes of tattered and drunken ' citizens,' who swarmed in
to every Dietine, ready to acclaim ' whatever the Lord Hetman,
(or the Lord Palatine) wishes,' and quick to use their swords in
case of opposition. As almost everybody in old Poland, from the
Diet down to the humblest law-court, was subject to mob-rule, it
was indispensable to have the mob on one's side. It was the mag-
nates who ruined Poland, and the ' barefoot szlachta,' who formed
their constant and efficacious instrument. And it was a sad
commentary upon ' golden liberty ' that more than half of the
class which boasted of its republican freedom and equality, had
been reduced to pauperism and to lives of groveling servility.

The results of ' golden liberty ' in the political sphere have
already in part been described. The administrative system was
completely disorganized. The great officials of the central govern-
ment, the marshals, chancellors, treasurers and hetmans, 1 were
irremovable and irresponsible, and each of them did what was

1 These great officials were always in pairs: one for ' the Crown ' (i. e., Poland),
and one for Lithuania. The hetmans were the highest military officials.


right in his own eyes. The officials who represented the Crown
in the provinces had virtually ceased to discharge their functions.
Whatever local administration existed was mainly carried on by
the Dietines. It need hardly be remarked that a state in which
the executive power was thus atrophied, could undertake none
of those tasks of economic and social improvement which were
coming to attract the attention of so many governments of that
day. At a time when almost every other nation was doing its
utmost to foster commerce and industry, Poland did nothing
whatever towards that end. And — what was most serious in its
immediate consequences — the Poles were blind even to the
necessity of having those primary elements of strength, well-
ordered finances and a respectable standing army. It has been
estimated that about 1750 the annual revenues of the Republic
amounted to only one-thirteenth of those of Russia, and one
seventy-fifth of those of France. 1 Although the nation was mis-
erably poor, and had neither trade nor industry to be taxed, it
could undoubtedly have raised far larger sums with ease, had the
szlachta been willing to bear their proper share of the burden, had
the finances been decently administered, and had the govern-
ment done anything to develop the great natural wealth of the
country. Partly because of the perpetual stringency in the
treasury, and partly because the szlachta distrusted a large
standing army as a potential instrument of ' despotism,' the
military forces of the Republic had been reduced to the barest
minimum. The Diet of 17 17 had fixed the size of the standing
army at 24,000 men; but as a matter of fact, hardly half of that
number were actually kept on foot. This Lilliputian army was
the laughing-stock of the neighbors. There were generally about
as many officers as privates in a regiment; the officers' positions
were sold, often to mere boys of good family; the troops were
chiefly cavalry, since it was beneath the dignity of a Polish gentle-
man to serve on foot; there was almost no artillery; and there
was no discipline at all. 2 The Republic possessed only one fortress,
Kamieniec. It had no natural frontier except the Carpathians.

1 Korzon, op. cit., iii, pp. 109 ff.

2 Bobrzynski, Dzieje Polski, ii, p. 274; Von der Briiggen, op. cit., pp. 80 f.


On every other side its vast territories lay open and defenceless,
almost seeming to invite the invasion of the three great military
monarchies that encircled it.

The szlachta, however, refused to recognize the danger. With
incredible blindness they even tried to persuade themselves that
the very impotence of Poland was the best guarantee of its
security. For, as they reasoned, since the Republic had renounced
all aggressive enterprises and had voluntarily rendered itself
incapable of harming its neighbors, the latter would never think
of disturbing a state of things so ideally adapted to their own
interests. Each of the neighboring Powers must see the advan-
tage of having a weak state like Poland on its frontiers, rather
than another strong military state like itself. And hence there
arose among the szlachta the insane maxim, ' Poland subsists
through its anarchy.'

Without a government worthy of the name, without an army,
without trade or manufactures, with misery universal in all
classes save a small minority, rotting away under a system of
' liberty ' which a sagacious Englishman described as " merely a
system of aristocratic licentiousness, where a few members of the
community are above the control of the law, while the majority
are excluded from its protection," l Poland had become, in the
opinion of foreign observers, the weakest and unhappiest of
nations. 2 A few among the Poles also recognized it. " Whatever
happens," one of them declared, " we cannot be any poorer or
weaker or more miserable than we now are, nor less free, nor more
oppressed, nor more despised by foreigners." 3


It was the cataclysm that so suddenly overwhelmed Poland in
the reign of John Casimir (1 648-1 668), the simultaneous and
amazingly successful attacks of Swedes, Muscovites, Cossacks,
and Tartars, that first revealed to the world the utter weakness of
the Republic. Then for the first time Europe saw foreign armies

1 William Coxe, Travels in Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark, i, p. 15.

2 Ibid., p. 143; cf. Burke in the Annual Register, 1772, p. 6.
8 Konarski, cited in Zaleski, Zywoi Czarloryskiego, i, pp. 23 f.


marching from one end of the country to the other, the szlachta
deserting their own sovereign en masse and welcoming an invader
as a deliverer, a king of Poland driven a fugitive from his do-
minions. Then for the first time the idea of a partition of Poland
began to be seriously and universally discussed. Charles Gus-
tavus, planning to unite Poland to Sweden, or else to divide up
the huge realm with his allies; the Great Elector, stipulating for
himself in his numerous negotiations and treaties with the Swedes
the acquisition of West Prussia, Samogitia, or Great Poland;
Tsar Alexis, seizing Lithuania and looking forward to the day
when he should take Poland as well; Austrian diplomats debating
the relative advantages for the Hapsburgs of getting the Polish
crown or partitioning the Republic — all these actors in that
crowded scene were anticipating by a hundred years the things
that Catherine and Frederick and Joseph accomplished. So
thoroughly had the idea of the imminent disruption of the Re-
public taken root in men's minds that French diplomats sus-
pected that a partition treaty had already been signed; * and
the King of Poland, addressing the Diet, solemnly prophesied
to the nation its impending fate: Moscow would take Lithuania;
the Brandenburger, Great Poland; Austria, Cracow and the
neighboring palatinates. In short, the First Great Northern
War not only raised the Polish Question, but also marked out
the future solution.

It was true that through a belated national uprising and the
intervention of the enemies of Sweden, Poland escaped from this
first crisis with slighter losses than might have been expected.
John Sobieski succeeded in restoring to some degree the prestige
of the Polish arms, and in asserting, virtually for the last time,
Poland's position as an independent and considerable member of
the European political system. But Sobieski's victories brought
his country hardly more than an ephemeral glory; the anarchy at
home grew constantly worse; while, as a result of that anarchy,
the Republic became a prey to foreign intrigues, and in particular

Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 5 of 59)